Three Things to Know: Kevin Durant is back — like really, maybe all the way, back


LOS ANGELES — The NBA season has returned, and so has the NBC Sports daily NBA roundup Three Things to Know — everything you might have missed, every key moment from the night before in the Association in one place. Three Things will be right here every weekday during the season… although we are taking some time off around Christmas and New Years’ Eve in the next couple of weeks. Family first. Be safe out there, and enjoy your time with your loved ones.

1) Kevin Durant is back — like really, maybe all the way, back. Which is trouble for the East.

Kevin Durant looked a lot like his vintage self in the final preseason game, putting up 25 points on the Celtics, but it was easy to look at that result and say, “Ok, sure, but that’s just the preseason.”

So Durant opened the NBA regular season with 10 points inside the first five minutes, again looking like peak Durant. He was scoring anyway and from anywhere he wanted against Golden State: He got a bucket on a dunk after driving baseline past a closeout, another when he created some space with his dribble than hit a midrange shot over the top of a well-placed defender, and drained a pull-up three before the defense set. Durant finished with 22 points on 7-of-16 shooting, and he didn’t even need to play 25 minutes to get all that.

It looked and felt like the Kevin Durant of old — the scoring champion, the MVP, and maybe most worrisome of all for the rest of the league, the Finals MVP Durant who was the best player in the game for a couple of years before he tore his Achilles.

That Durant, if he’s back and can stay healthy, makes the Brooklyn Nets serious title contenders. They looked it blowing out the Warriors 125-99.

It’s one game, so be careful jumping on the bandwagon. However, what was most important for the Nets is it wasn’t just Durant — Kyrie Irving added 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting, and he also didn’t have to play more than 25 minutes.

Caris LeVert added 20 points, the Nets moved the ball well, and their defense was solid (although how much of that was the Nets and how much of that was every Warrior not named Stephen Curry struggling with their jumper is up for debate). For one night, the Nets looked like a threat to everyone in the East, and maybe even those top teams in the West. It’s just one night; there are 71 games to go before things really get serious.

But Kevin Durant looks like he is back.

2) The Lakers’ ring ceremony was emotional even with no fans in the building.

It was honestly eerie to walk up to Staples Center Tuesday night — the night the Lakers players were to get their championship rings — and not see crowds of people in Lakers jerseys milling around Star Plaza outside Staples Center, getting their pictures taken with statues of Magic or Kareem or Chick Hearn. Downtown Los Angeles was a ghost town.

How would that lack of fans impact the traditionally emotional ceremony of giving away championship rings to the Lakers?

It turns out, not much at all, because the Lakers came up with a clever solution — have family members present the rings through video messages on the scoreboard above the arena. That filled the large, empty arena with emotion. Here are a few highlights.

Well done by the Lakers. Team owner Jeanie Buss and Commissioner Adam Silver said the Lakers would do this again — and unveil the franchise’s 17th banner, which hangs in the rafters with a sign over it that says “Stay Tuned Lakers Family” — once fans are let back in the building.

3) Paul George spoiled that ring ceremony — and he got a new PS 5 in his locker.

While the Lakers were out getting their rings, the Clippers players each found team owner Steve Ballmer had put a PS 5 — the hard-to-get item everybody wants this Christmas — in their locker. This is the kind of touch that has changed the Clippers’ reputation around the league and has some saying Steve Ballmer is the best owner in the NBA. (Although shouldn’t the former Microsoft CEO being giving out something from the Xbox series?)

Paul George got one of those, but he said what really made him happy was to be back playing basketball in his normal environment. George admitted he was hit hard by the bubble’s isolation, that it impacted him on and off the court.

Tuesday night he was back to his comfortable routine. George said “it just feels more natural” playing games in arenas — driving to the arena, going through warmups, the normalcy of it in a setting he knows.

George also said he felt better and more ready heading into this season than the last one (that massive contract extension probably helped). Last offseason, George had surgery on both shoulders and missed training camp and the start of the season recovering.

“I didn’t have a summer to workout, I was basically inactive for 3-4 months…” George said Tuesday night, comparing it to this offseason, “I had an offseason to train, to work out, to work on my craft.”

It showed opening night against the Lakers. George scored 33 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including going 5-of-8 from three. More importantly, he dominated a stretch late in the third quarter — scoring 10 straight points — when the Clippers pulled away and never looked back, going on to knock off the Lakers on opening night 116-109.

It’s one preseason game, be careful reading too much into it — the Clippers beat the Lakers on opening night a season ago, and how much did that actually matter? Still, a healthy George and 26 points from Kawhi Leonard are real reasons for optimism for the Clippers. It was something to build on for the next 71 games for a team with title aspirations